My recent posts on Lucy Hilmer’s work and on long-term projects are obvious clues to what is on my mind recently, photographically speaking. It therefore feels only fitting that I write today about “The Brown Sisters” project by Nicholas Nixon, for which Nixon has taken a photograph of his wife and her three sisters once a year for the past 40 years.
1975, New Canaan, Conn.
I have been aware of Nixon’s entire body of work for a long time now, and have been intrigued by “The Brown Sisters” series, specifically, as it has unfolded over the years. The New York Times recently published an article about this series, which will be published in a book in November.
2014, Wellfleet, Mass.
Seeing Nixon’s pictures in the Times article and reading the accompanying text make me consider exactly what it is that I am trying to do in my own long-term projects. More specifically, they bring up a question I ask myself frequently: “How are my own long-term projects different from those of other artists?”
Are they really different? If so, in what way? What distinguishes my work from any of the other long-term portrait or self-portrait projects that are out there? It’s critical for me to answer these questions, and I’m glad that I have plenty of time to think about them as I work on gathering and editing the various projects that I’ve been working on over the years.
Do I have answers to these questions at this time? No. Will I ever answer them? Maybe. But forcing myself to at least address them is a healthy and necessary part of my creative process.
My last post mentioned the work of Lucy Hilmer, whose website shows examples of three bodies of work she made that were shot over long periods of time. Seeing her work has made me think a lot about the fact that I also have three long-term projects going that have never seen the light of day. They are:
1. My “birthday” series. Every year on my birthday I put my camera on a tripod and shoot either one roll of 36-exposure film or 36 digital images that show what I do that day from the moment I get up in the morning to the moment I go to bed that night.
2. My “post-partum” series. This series actually began while I was pregnant, when I photographed a nude self-portrait once a month for the duration of the pregnancy. I wanted to track what my body looked like as the months progressed. After giving birth, I was fascinated by the changes the pregnancy had wrought to my body, and wondered how it would age over time. So every year on the anniversary of the birth, I take a nude full-length self-portrait in front of a white backdrop: one from the front, one from the right side, one from the back, and one from the left side.
3. My “sister-in-law” series. This series started the year before my sister-in-law got pregnant. I took a shot of her in front of her house one summer. The next summer, she was nine months pregnant and I thought it would be interesting to pose her in the same spot. The next year, I thought it would be fun to pose her with her and her toddler. And all of a sudden, a series was born. All three of her children are now grown and out of the house, but every summer I am back there, posing her in front of her house, and thinking of how much time and history have passed since I started.
I haven’t exhibited any of those series- I am making them just because I want to make them- but enough time has gone by now that I going to start taking a more serious look at them, both as discreet bodies of work in and of themselves, but also in comparison to each other. It’s another way to discover what I have been thinking and saying as an artist over long periods of time.
It’s great when friends send me links to the work of artists with whom I am not familiar. Lucy Hilmer is the latest artist that I have discovered through my friend Laurie.
Hilmer has three series on her website, all of which address the issue of time and aging. The first series, “Birthday Suits”, consists of pictures that she has taken of herself every year on her birthday since 1974. In them, she wears a pair of underpants, shoes and socks, but is otherwise nude.
The second series, “The Wedding House”, shows Hilmer and her husband standing in front of the house in which they got married in 1984. They go there every year on their anniversary to make take a picture commemorating the event.
The third series, “My Valentine”, is a series of 21 photographs, all of which chart the first twenty-one years of her daughter’s life on Valentine’s Day. The pictures depict her husband, who has on a black sweater, and her daughter, who wears white, and a rose.
Because I have shot a number of series in this manner over the course of many years, I have a real appreciation for the discipline required to get out your camera and take a shot every year on the same date. Hilmer’s poses hint at what is going on in her life in any given year, without giving too much away, and I really respond to that. The fact that her work is in black & white makes it relatively timeless, as does the fact that her clothing in her “Birthday Suit” series is exactly the same from year to year. This work is for anyone who has ever been interested in the relationship between photography, time and memory.